Project description and goals

Research problem, aims and relevance

In the Einstein Circle we approach the topic of otherness and alien situations in planetary sciences that are part of the natural sciences, in conjunction with different perspectives on those topics from the social sciences and humanities. We specifically want to lay ground to understand and find ways to deal with otherness in the form of natural catastrophes that may be seen as alien environments, colonization of planetary objects, as well as alien life. We will ask the questions: What is (the) alien? How do humans approach alien environments or alien life? While culturally and societally, the alien is usually defined as "something strange and frightening" or understood as "different from what we are used to", it can often be perceived as negative or disapproving. From a natural science perspective, however, finding "alien life" to prove that we are not alone, or exploring alien environments elsewhere in the universe is desirable. In that regard the Einstein circle is proposing to integrate contradicting perspectives and shedding light on this topic from different disciplinary perspectives.
Our project adopts a particularly strong form of interdisciplinarity. We bring together insights and methods by joining forces from extremely diverse fields. Our interdisciplinary ambition is thus very high since we aim to bridge the gap between the humanities, social sciences and the natural sciences, and to overcome the perennial dichotomy between abstract philosophical and theoretical reflection and investigations of otherness as a natural and empirical phenomenon. We are convinced that a collaborative effort between these diverse fields is essential in order to provide a new basis for developing an innovative research program on otherness and alien life. One of our key perspectives is the epistemological challenge of the alien as life and as environment. We aim at developing new research questions and joint proposals that can make important contributions to possible future scenarios in which we will have to deal with such forms of otherness.

Relevance for science and society

While scientific expertise usually only covers a discipline-specific set of theories and methods, problems in the world are manifold and need expertise from a broad set of disciplines to be understood and tackled. For example, natural catastrophes need to be understood from a geophysical perspective, but they also have an impact on humans directly or indirectly via media, by shaping their perception and as such cognition and behavior of humans. Humans may feel threatened by them or constructively find ways to deal with them. Similarly, alien life will need a planetary science perspective to understand the environment as well as a biological perspective for understanding the biological system. Alien life is not only a topic of the natural sciences, but as it impacts religious beliefs, human cognition as well as human behavior, it is also a topic of social sciences and humanities. No discipline on their own entails all the theories and methods to understand and explain these complex issues. We thus seek to combine and integrate these perspectives to arrive at a general understanding of the phenomenon.

The Einstein Circle aims at adding views and solutions to the following three questions:
1) How can we deal with changes in the environment that confront humans due to natural catastrophes such as an asteroid striking Earth or solar plasma storms?
2) How can we deal with possible scenarios and challenges of colonization of other planetary objects such as Moon and Mars, and
3) How can we prepare for facing the discovery of alien life?

As other new discoveries, such as fast developing technological developments (e.g., social media) or catastrophes such as the current pandemic taught us, it is vital to humans to be prepared for upcoming challenges. Preparation for these issues must start before challenging situations occur in order to have tools to deal with them already at hand when needed. Within the Einstein Circle, we will explore the challenges around and perception of alien situations.